What is the key to a happy marriage?
As a 44-year veteran of the marriage game I suppose I ought to be qualified to provide some sort of coherent answer to that question. Bring home a bouquet of flowers once a week. Never go to bed angry. Kiss the cook. You get the idea.
But the truth is that at this stage of my life I have no idea what makes marriage work, and probably never did. Every time I think I have things figured out, they change. Tragedies strike. Ships come in. We get rich. We get poor. Kids grow up. We grow up. Friends move. We move.
It seems to me that each of life’s stages require different things of us as husbands and wives. What brought a light to my wife’s eye in her late twenties may not so work so well now that we both have fresh-minted Medicare cards in our pockets.
Here’s one quick example. Back in the day it was important for me to spend as much time at home as possible. This was always a challenge, considering the competing demands of work, church, and the occasional jog around the block.
Now I am occasionally invited to occupy myself elsewhere in order to avoid the dreaded “under foot” condition.
So for what it’s worth, here are the keys, plural, I’ve discovered to a happy marriage, at least from the male side of the aisle. Each key worked great for a few years until it wore out, which required me to go looking for new ones.
The Years of Getting Started: Compromise. See how she lights up when you agree to go square dancing with her? Notice how she agreed to come along to the Wretched Dead concert? That’s what it’s all about, amigo. Meanwhile, have a dream that she buys into, and work like heck to achieve it. Make sure she knows that the dream includes her. Be very careful not to overplay the “sorry I have to work late” card. It gets old, fast.
The Years of Young Kids: Devote yourself to their upbringing to the fullest extent possible. Nothing will make your wife happier than knowing that you care about your children as much as she does—which is impossible, by the way, but give it your best shot.
The Years of Teenagers: Don’t make your wife have to endlessly apologize for why you’re not there. Be ready for tears. Your inner sense of right and wrong, not to mention your devotion, has never been more important.
The Years of Weddings: As the nest empties, accept that you and your wife have been living parallel and not always intersecting lives for a very long time. Reconnect with tenderness, while recognizing that roads in need of repair always have potholes and bumps. Does she want to do something, but she worries it’s too big, or time consuming? Push her out the door if necessary. You’ve been able to pursue dreams while raising your family. For her, maybe not so much. If necessary, she gets to play catch up now.
The Ending as We Began Years: Go easy on the blame for your inevitable regrets. You both did the best you could. Move on. It takes awhile to rediscover the truth you’ve forgotten over the last three or four decades—in the end, it’s only about the two of you. It always has been. Your kids have their own lives to live. In my experience that’s a bit tougher sell for her than for you, but be patient. You should be an expert at patience by now.
The Years of Saying Goodbye: I have no advice on this, since I’m not there yet. I admit I’m not looking forward to it. If you have any suggestions, drop me a line.
The good news is that when you finally have time to breathe, you’ll both be amazed at how you each made it through the years still as beautiful and as handsome as when you started. It may take a bit of work, but as long as you can still see the light in each other’s eyes, everything will be fine.